On the eve of last week’s celebration of the Shavuot holiday – a festival that celebrates God’s gift of the Torah to His chosen people – Israel’s haredi community rejoiced in a different celebration of a different gift: adoption by the Knesset of a new government budget that includes massive discretionary earmarks for the ultra-Orthodox community that were demanded by haredi political leaders in order to continue support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
The numbers are staggering. Budgets for 2023 and 2024 include at least NIS 5.9 billion ($1.9 billion) in discretionary earmarks for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community that include grants to yeshivah students and married haredi men who choose to pursue the full-time study of religious texts rather than enter the workforce, funding for unregulated religious schools that don’t teach core curriculum subjects, and increased support for a food stamp program that is not tied to working or seeking gainful employment. These new allocations are in addition to a complex web of stipends, subsidies, tax abatements and direct payment programs made available to haredi families, receipt of which is often cancelled if the head of the household goes to work.
These extraordinary government supports create a significant strain on Israel’s economy.. And they are resented by other Israelis who are being called upon to shoulder the rising cost of supporting a growing haredi population that wants no part of modern Israel.
According to a recent report from the Kohelet Policy Forum, the benefits made available by the Israeli government to haredi families result in haredi families receiving four times the total financial benefit given to non-haredi families. In addition to the disconcerting imbalance of that treatment, the subsidies create a significant disincentive for haredi men to join the workforce.
Added to that is the fact that haredi schools, which will also receive increased funding, provide little or no secular education for male students — making it difficult for haredi students to achieve high school matriculation, pursue university study or enter the workforce. And, haredi students are exempt from Israel’s military draft, which shuts off another channel for possible haredi integration into broader Israeli society.
All of this is happening as haredi families are growing at a much faster rate than the rest of Israel’s population. Haredim were 3% of Israel’s Jewish population in 1948. Today, they account for 13% of Israel’s population and an eye-popping 25% of newborns.
Haredi leaders in Israel need to face the reality that the system of ever-increasing government supports for a segment of the population that is growing exponentially, seeks to separate from the remainder of society, refuses to engage in active support of the very government that sustains it and refuses to help grow the economy on which its support is based is destined to fall apart once the haredi parties’ stranglehold on the future of the governing coalition disappears.
Haredi leaders have artfully worked the system for years. But the massive government supports they have orchestrated are not sustainable. Haredi parties need a Plan B. ■